The Holy Stairs – often called by their Latin name Scala Sancta – are claimed to be the stairs that Christ ascended at the house of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem. Today, the stairs lead to a chapel known as the Sancta Sanctorum – the ‘Holiest of Holy’.
Both the Sancta Sanctorum and the Scala Sancta are housed in a rather unassuming building across the square from the Lateran Basilica.
The chapel was originally housed in the Lateran Palace. The palace, which had suffered from devastating fires, was razed to the ground in the sixteenth century on the order of Pope Sixtus V. The pope then assigned architect Domenico Fontana the task of building a new palace.
The Sancta Sanctorum was saved from demolition and moved to its current place, where Fontana designed a separate building to house the chapel. The chapel is located on the first floor and the Holy Stairs were placed in front so that the chapel can be reached from the ground floor. The stairs were also located in the original Lateran Palace; visitors who had been granted an audience with the pope had to climb these stairs.
According to legend, the Scala Sancta were brought to Rome in 326 BC by Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great. The Holy Stairs have twenty-eight marble steps that are covered with walnut boards to protect them from wear and tear.
People are supposed to climb the stairs on their knees, and you can still see some visitors do this to this day. The story goes that during his stay in Rome, Martin Luther climbed the stairs on his knees, only to stand up halfway and walk back down in protest of the veneration of relics. There are staircases on either side of the Holy stairs that can be used by the non-religious who want to see the chapel.
The statues at the foot of the stairs were created by Ignazio Jacometti and show Christ with Pilate on the left and Christ betrayed by a kiss from Judas on the right.
The history of the Sancta Sanctorum goes back to the time of Emperor Constantine, but the current chapel was built inside the Lateran Palace in 1278, during the pontificate of Nicholas III. It was dedicated to Saint Lawrence and used by the pope as his private chapel.
The chapel, which cannot be accessed, holds a number of relics that were deemed so important that in the Middle Ages it was considered the most holy place in the world. An inscription on the altar even states ‘Non est in toto sanctior orbe locus’ – there is no holier place on earth.
The most important relic in the chapel is a so-called acheiropoieton – a painting that is not painted by human hands. The painting, a portrait of Jesus, was created by Saint Lucas, who is said to have been assisted by an angel.